This is part six of my reflections on Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger's book, Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures. If you missed the earlier columns, here are the links: part one; part two; part three; part four; part five.
Part II of Christianity and the Crisis of Cultures is composed of three short chapters in which Benedict reflects on that dignity of the human person – from conception to death – the respect for which can be the only lasting foundation of an ordered civil society. "When man's conscience loses respect for life as something sacred," he writes, "he inevitably ends by losing his own identity." Indeed, the loss of respect for the sacredness of human life at any stage, and the willingness to attack that fundamental good for the sake of other goods undermines the very possibility of civil life together.
It follows that a state that claims the prerogative of defining who is and who is not the subject of rights, and that consequently accepts that some persons have the right to violate the fundamental right to life of other persons, contradicts the democratic ideal, although it continues to appeal to this claim. Such a state imperils the very basis on which it governs (p. 64).
This is why "the abortion issue" is not simply one issue among many. The egregious violations against human life, which are commonplace in western societies, constitute a grave threat to our own continued existence: we risk losing our own identity; we risk estrangement from our own humanity.
Benedict points out that such estrangement occurs when the value of human life is consistently run through the sieve of that primordial and sacrosanct of all values: "the right of the individual to express himself freely." He further points out that this dynamic presupposes the misconception – theoretically or at least implicitly – that rights, including the right to life, are to be conferred on others, rather than being recognized as already inhering in them from the very first moment of their existence.
Such a misconception, furthermore, goes hand in hand with the historically tragic tendency to view other human beings – at least potentially or at some stages of their existence – as objects. Human beings, however, are distinct from all other animals in the world for the precise reason that we engage in – or posses the active potential to engage in – conscious, self-directive, free action. Only human animals are rational, free subjects by nature, which is to say, of all the species of animals on the earth, only human beings are persons.
In order to recognize other human beings as subjects and not objects – even at their very earliest stages of development – the Holy Father says we must "open our eyes":
This makes it clear that the look I freely direct to the other is decisive for my own dignity, too. I can acquiesce in reducing the other to a thing that I use and destroy; but by the same token, I must accept the consequences of the way I use my eyes here. These consequences fall back on my own head: "You will yourselves be measured by the measure with which you measure." The way I look at the other is decisive for my own humanity. I can treat him quite simply like a thing, forgetting my dignity and his, forgetting that both he and I are made in the image and likeness of God. The other is the custodian of my own dignity. This is why morality, which begins with this look directed to the other, is the custodian of the truth and the dignity of man: man needs morality in order to be himself and not lose his dignity in the world of things (pp. 69-70).
Recognizing the dignity of others is that much easier, the Holy Father points out, when I have been able to rejoice in the experience of how "Good looks at us in love."
"And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen 1:26, 3 I).
Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).